Wednesday 4 February 2015

My Grapefruit, My Father (2004)

Director: Jeremy Feig
Stars: Ian Tanza, Jeremy Feig, Susan Kitchen, Leslie Lello, Lauren Wadden and Connie Schiro

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

This week's Weird Wednesday features two films that really don't know what they want to be. For a start, My Grapefruit, My Father and Abducted by the Daleks are long short films. Or short feature. I haven't a clue how they ought to be categorised but this one is just short of 42 minutes and the other runs for 55. Neither are good films, but this one does have a few moments of admirable surreality, as the title might suggest, as well as some comedic moments that made me laugh out loud. By comparison, Abducted by the Daleks has naked blondes and, well, daleks. If that makes you leave this one for that one, hold your horses. That's a particularly difficult film to make it through without fast forwarding, while this one is just a lot less than it could have been, mostly because of the amateur talents on show. Jeremy Feig, who was the film's writer, editor, producer, director, lead actor and probably the guy who cleaned the bathroom, has made a number of films since this debut, so I can only assume he's got better.

He plays Travis Cloverfield on screen here, the long lost son of Sidney who's close to death as we begin. We might assume, if we haven't read anything into the title, that we're up for soporific sentimentality, as young Travis returns home to be with his loving family after three years away and for his mum, Mirabella, to usher him in to see his father before he passes. Fortunately that's not what we get for two important reasons: none of the actors, whose skills vary in quality, are of the level where they can successfully tug our heartstrings and Sidney isn't the sentimental type. In fact, he doesn't even plan on dying. Sure, that body he's stuck in is going to stop breathing soon enough, but he met a witchdoctor at a support group, Don Wally Ramaparté by name, who taught him a neat little trick. Death doesn't have to be permanent, he explains to his son. With the right training, he can transfer his soul to another body to live on. That's why he needs Travis; he wants to hold his hand and move into his body as he dies. Nice guy, huh?

Frankly, we have no reason to like Sidney, who appears to be a worthless father and grandfather, but we might just be on his side at this point because Travis is such a whiny nonentity. Here's the first problem; we're given a key moment to choose who we want to sympathise with and we don't wanna. We'd choose any inanimate object in the room instead, like a candle or a pair of curtains or a grapefruit, which is as good an explanation for this film as I can conjure up. As a graduate of the Anakin Skywalker school of making the audience not care, Travis does at least have some self-preservation skills. No way he'll share his body with his father, who he hates. He hands him that grapefruit instead, so that when his body fails and his soul leaps into whatever he's touching, his father becomes... the grapefruit. A talking grapefruit, of course, or we'd have a short film, but also one who can see, hear and feel pain. Later in the film we're given Sidney's explanation for how any of this is possible. 'I don't know,' he repeats and we move on.
Given that Ian Tanza, who plays Sidney, is probably the best actor in the film, it's rather unfortunate that it tasks him for the most part with voice acting for a grapefruit. We actually fear for the picture when we believe that it's going to involve years of Travis's bottled up angst erupting in scenes where he's the only human being on screen. 'You missed everything,' he emotes at his ball-shaped father. 'I want to change,' replies the grapefruit. 'I want to make amends.' As far as I was concerned, the best early moment was as two little girls dare each other to touch Sidney's corpse at the wake. They're stopped, just in time, to the excuse of, 'We just wanted to see if he was squishy yet.' Unfortunately, we're inflicted with more Travis, a man puny enough that he can't pound a grapefruit into a church floor and leave a dent. On the evidence of this film, Feig is a much better writer than he is an actor, as the successes so far are mostly earned by dialogue, with nods to a few supporting actors, such as Lauren Wadden as Travis's little sister, Katie.

She steals the grapefruit from the church and the film with it. While we do enjoy the surreality of Travis attempting to explain the truth to his psychiatrist, we enjoy Katie far more as she talks to the grapefruit. Like every little girl, she knows exactly what to do to get what she wants and she's happy to scratch her granddad's peel to make him break his silence. Wadden is a game little girl too, because she clearly isn't into one important scene late in the film which I can't spoil, but does it anyway for the sake of the movie. Unfortunately nobody else is up to that standard. Susan Kitchen could have been worse as Mirabella and Connie Schiro gets some fun scenes as the Cloverfields' nurse, Marta, who was apparently doing Sidney on the side and doesn't want to leave, even though she no longer has a patient. The most promising acting in the film seems to be by Travis's friends at the wake, who only get a few lines each and promptly use them to steal the picture from their on screen friend with a much bigger part.
Technically the film isn't much to write home about, though I've seen worse and would do so again right after this with my next Weird Wednesday selection. After the surreal concept that underpins the film, the best aspects are all in the script. Feig wrote some quirky dialogue for a number of actors. My favourite is Marta's heartfelt plea to the grapefruit with which she wants to run away to continue their life of bliss in some imaginative way: 'We frolic together during day,' she thinks aloud. 'I pack you in ice cooler during night.' He even brings in a surprise or two, as I could have sworn I knew exactly where he was going with the later scenes but he switched it all up on me. The final scene is a deceptively deep one, inappropriate and wrong in every way, which is notably subversive for what would otherwise feel exactly like a Lifetime Channel Movie of the Week if only its most prominent character was played by an aging soap opera star instead of a grapefruit. Casting is important, folks.

When the end credits rolled, what I was stuck with was confusion as to why this film was made. It feels as if Jeremy Feig actually wanted to make a serious drama, with a set of meditations on family, reconciliation and closure. It feels as if he had sympathy and sentiment at the top of his list of emotions to evoke from his audience. It feels as if the characters are there to make social comment, leaving us with insight into a wide range of tough situations. Yet he wrote a comedy not a drama, with the best bits the funny ones. He also, most frickin' obviously, turned the patriarch of the family into a grapefruit. The only possible way to get away with that is on a surrealistic platform, which is entirely undetectable outside that one conceit. It strikes me that at the end of the day, anyone who might enjoy the drama will be quickly turned off by its central concept. Only people who enjoy the inanity and insanity of that concept might get a kick out of it and they'll be sadly bored to tears by everything else.

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